Xee Reiter’s backyard is bursting with life, with three gardens, a hen house, an in-progress worm farm, and a beehive. Some may think it looks chaotic, but to Reiter, who grew up with fresh produce from a garden and helped butcher the chickens her family raised, it looks like an organic canvas.
“I grew up in North Carolina, in a place where neglected tractors are kept in the front yards,” she says. “My mom would be cooking and she would tell me to go get some herbs from the garden, and I would run out there with no shoes on, come back inside, and she would put it right in the pot. There is nothing more beautiful than that.”
Reiter grew up in a family with six siblings. Early on she learned to enjoy her solitude and would draw for hours on end. She recalls her first seed of artistic inspiration: a portrait of a singer hung on a cousin’s wall. “Right when I walked in, I thought, ‘That’s a cool picture.’ As I looked, I saw every pencil stroke, I saw all the shading, and all the work they put into it, and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is possible?’”
Reiter has carried that inspiration forward in her life as an artist. She describes herself as the opposite of a graphic artist. She was never strong at math and shies away from precision in her pieces. Instead, she favors the natural and vivid style her gardens evoke, displaying things other artists might consider flaws as intrinsic parts of the piece.
“My process is very organic, and it’s quick if I’m feeling inspired. I want to see what it is going to look like. I just love all the little flaws and bits and pieces I put in there,” she explains. “Sometimes I leave in construction marks, just so they know it’s me.”
For this month’s cover, Reiter’s inspiration came from stepping out into her backyard garden. She wanted to stay away from the typical color scheme of warm oranges and yellows that are associated with the harvest, and chose instead to focus on the rich, cool, and neutral colors of her root vegetables. “I love cooking, I love gardening, I love food, and I love art, so it all comes together,” Reiter says.
Below the roots, Reiter included another detail—one she used her imagination to conjure up. Last winter, she had to keep the henhouse close to the garage to keep the birds’ water from freezing, which led to a vole and mouse problem. She started thinking about what it would look like beneath her garden—all the vole tunnels snaking through the roots. Then she started to draw.
“First I have to be really excited about it,” she describes her process. “I jump up and down, I announce it to my family so they know what to expect.” Reiter gathers her materials from her attic-level studio, which has no natural light, then heads downstairs to utilize the natural light, abundance of plants, and presence of her family. She prefers to work somewhere not isolated and dedicates the studio space for storage and administrative tasks.
“I own my dining table—I mean, really own it,” Reiter says. “I spread everything out, nothing is in order, everything has to be chaos. I usually blare music; some bands I listen to are Wolf Alice and Incubus.”
Besides making art, Reiter is raising her three children and working a full-time job at Target. Her artistic endeavors have led to collaborations with the Minnesota Museum of American Art—you can see her mural at Fourth and Jackson streets in Lowertown St. Paul—as well as with Hmong American Farmers Association’s (HAFA) ArtCrop program. Reiter says that doing a little bit of everything and having a full-time job keeps her grounded and allows her to use both her creative side and analytical side regularly. “Use it or lose it,” she says.
When she’s not working, or gardening, or doing one of the other seemingly hundreds of other things she is involved in, Reiter and her family love to go backpacking in the Northwoods. She says she enjoys coming up with new and creative ways to spice up camp food, from making her own seasoned beef jerky to making a fish-head stew from one of their catches that day. She has even made a mushroom-style savory tea.
“I’m a big fan of: do what you can with what you have, where you are. It doesn’t matter, even with art. Whatever tool you give me, I’ll be able to create.”
Medium: Watercolors, Pen, Ink
Currently resides: St. Paul, MN